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Making the most of coding bootcamps

Computer Weekly explores how aspiring developers can make the most of coding bootcamps, with a focus on how to avoid being duped by a programme that promises more than it can deliver

Coding bootcamps and courses have expanded massively in the past decade, transforming from small operations on the fringe of the technology sector to fully fledged enterprises with thousands of graduates a year over that time.

These bootcamps are essentially technical training courses that teach people the programming languages or coding skills that enterprises are looking for, and are delivered either online, in person or using a mix of both approaches.

They are an increasingly popular way-in to the industry for people focused on wanting to learn a specific programming language or set of skills, often in a fast-tracked way.

The past three years in particular have seen a significant increase in the number of bootcamp-style training providers, as enterprises hit the recruitment trail in hot pursuit of people with the required tech skills to power their digital transformations.

This is reflected in figures from UK-based entrepreneurial network Tech Nation, which reveal a substantial 40%  increase in the number of people employed by the UK’s tech sector since 2017, which now accounts for 9% of the overall national workforce at 2.9 million employees.

“With the UK economy needing 125,000 new software developers every year, and with traditional education unable to develop this level of talent, more people need to be taught to code through alternative routes,” says Jack Capel, a senior technology consultant at tech-industry recruitment firm Spinks, a trading division of Harvey Nash.

“The second major factor [for the large increase in coding bootcamps] is around diversity, and the fact that not all of us learn in the same way. As bootcamps are able to attract a more diverse talent pool to the industry with various levels of both professional and life experiences, they are also helping to drive a more diverse technology pool in the UK.”

A likely impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic will be a further expansion of bootcamps, with one in three adults now using lockdown as an opportunity to develop their skills, while polling data commissioned by education publisher Pearson shows there has been a 300% surge in Google searchers for ‘online courses’ since lockdown began on 23 March.

Bootcamps have an important role to play in supporting people who might be opting for a mid-life career change or who find “traditional” university-based routes into the industry less than appealing, but not all bootcamps are created equal.

For every industry success story, there are plenty of scare stories online about aspiring developers getting trapped in unexpected, even financially ruinous, situations by sub-par or dishonest bootcamp operations.

To learn more about the landscape, and to find out how bootcamps and other tools can be properly leveraged as an entry point into the tech industry by prospective students, Computer Weekly has spoken to a number of stakeholders in the space.

Not a one-stop shop

The general consensus among the people Computer Weekly spoke to is that anyone considering bootcamps as a route into the industry needs to manage their expectations about the positive impact it could have on their job prospects and future earning potential.

Olly Robinson, a graduate of online coding camp SuperHi, was able to secure a job as a developer in Leeds on £18,000 a year, but says while the bootcamp gave him a good grounding in the subject, it was just one of many tools he used to advance his skills and knowledge.

“I’ve gotten a lot from doing the SuperHi courses, but I didn’t just do those – for example, I did a few of those free online tutorials to brush up on specific skills,” he says, before adding that SuperHi was preferable to learning exclusively through free tools because of the structure it gave the process.

“Due to the nature of it being online learning, I wouldn’t draw such a strong line from doing those courses specifically to landing a job. The SuperHi courses formed the biggest part of me teaching myself, but they were by no means the only bit.”

Head of content and communications at London-based coding camp Makers Academy, Adele Barlow, says bootcamps are about “learning to learn”, rather than the content of coding courses themselves.

“No coding bootcamp gets you everything that you’re going to need to know for the job,” she says. “All a bootcamp can do is set you up with the skills to learn, so that when you’re chucked in the deep end at your job, you have those tools inside you to help you navigate something new and different.”

Most of the people who come to our courses are doing it to upskill, rather than change careers
Rik Lomas, SuperHi

According to a 2018 developer survey by Stack Overflow, 45.5% of respondents who attended bootcamps already had a job in tech. This means bootcamps are not just for hopeful newcomers, as a significant minority of the graduates are clearly using the courses provided as a means to update various skills or pivot into new tech roles.

Echoing Stack Overflow’s findings, SuperHi founder and New York-based startup adviser Rik Lomas says most of the people attending its online courses have backgrounds in the creative industry.

“Most of the people who come to our courses are designers, illustrators, photographers, et cetera, and most of them are doing it to upskill, rather than change careers,” he says, adding that this experience often gives them a better understand of the dynamics of the tech industry.

For Rachid Hourizi, director at the Institute of Coding, a consortium of universities, businesses and industry experts set up in 2018 by the UK government to close the digital skills gap by creating degree-level courses, the focus of bootcamps going forward should be on life-long learning and progressing people past their initial coding education experience.

“Once you’ve got your first taste, how are you going to get deeper skills, how are you going to learn the latest set of skills that maybe weren’t part of your original bootcamp, or maybe were touched on but need to be expanded? The notion of life-long learning and skills progression is going to become increasingly important,” he says.

The bootcamp wild west

A December 2019 analysis by Course Report, which regularly publishes data on the global bootcamp market, suggests the average salary for a bootcamp graduate is $66,964 a year, with most graduates taking between one to six months to find their first job.

However, both Barlow and Lomas are of the view that graduates should not expect these kind of high-earning tech jobs straight out of the gate.

Not only is a lot of the data collected about bootcamps self-reported, according to Lomas, bootcamps can also be mistakenly seen as a “get-rich-quick scheme” by both the operators and students alike.

“People see it as these rich tech jobs and they’re suddenly going to be a senior developers with £60,000 jobs, but it’s about starting from the bottom again. A lot of people I’ve seen are senior in their general careers, but they leave to go into tech and they’re suddenly back at junior level again,” he says.

“Some people don’t mind that, they get it’s one step forward, two steps back, but for other people it’s ‘Why am I not at the same level yet, I’ve got lots of experience?’. Like, you do, but not in the rough areas, and that’s the mismatch.”

He added that part of the mismatch is also down to bootcamps themselves making unrealistic claims about the salaries people are able to attain afterwards.

“There’s a good example of a code school in New York [called Flatiron] that got sued for lying about their statistics on the website. They said, ‘This is our acceptance rate for jobs’, but they were including things like internships and freelance work – even a project someone did for their mate,” says Lomas.

“As more bootcamps come into play, there’ll be a lot more legal stuff around that, where people just can’t say, ‘This is our average starting salary’. There needs to be some kind of independent verification of that which says it’s true – you can’t claim this stuff unless you do a check.

“We’re still in the wild west for a lot of stuff at the moment, both online and even in person. There’s a lot of claims that are not actually true once you Google it.”

Bootcamps versus computer science degrees

On top of juking employment statistics, the unaccredited and unregulated nature of the education provided can also be a cause for concern, leading to potential problems when looking for jobs at some firms.

Lomas, for example, told Computer Weekly that some recruiters he knows will simply say “no” to bootcamp graduates.

“Their opinion is basically, ‘I’ve seen so many of these bootcamp people, and they never work out and they don’t have the kind of real-world skills that we need’. People going into bootcamps don’t know that and they don’t see the other side,” he says.

“Someone went to one of these design courses and applied for a design job at SuperHi. They’d spent £16,000 on this course, but their resumé was really badly designed and the basics were not there. I felt really bad because they obviously applied for the job and are confident they can do this, but they don’t even have the basics to start doing this.”

The lack of adequate skills and experience can also make companies hesitant when looking at job applications from bootcamp graduates, says Blaine Dawes, a recruiter with a decade’s worth of experience in the technology sector, and co-founder of recruitment firm iSearchWorks.

“Clients are very hesitant about taking on a graduate who might have learned a different code, and they always want more experienced people,” he says, adding that computer science degrees were seen by industry as a big plus.

“They can really understand back-end systems if they’ve got a computer science degree, and they really understand advanced technology languages.”

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Capel from Spinks say that while he occasionally sees some reluctance from companies around hiring bootcamp graduates, there are “positive signs” that attitudes such as this are changing and will even accelerate as enterprises look for new ways to plug the skills gaps in their companies.

“Often universities will deliver computer science courses that are extensive in theory, but are less up to date with the latest technologies, methodologies and commercial uses. Conversely, some of the bootcamps I have worked with are teaching their students in commercial-style product teams, using agile methodologies, and are being mentored by current software developers utilising the latest technologies,” he says.

“People from the bootcamp may not have the in-depth level of knowledge and theory that you would get from a computer science degree, but what they will be able to do is launch into a new role more effectively as they have experience of working in a software team.”

Dawes says things are slowly starting to change for bootcamp learners too, as more corporate entities are starting to hire directly out of these cohorts and even form partnerships with them.

London-based bootcamp General Assembly, for example, promotes its graduates to all of their hiring partners, which include the likes of Google, Microsoft Ventures and McKinsey.

The director of technology at recruitment firm Roger Walters, Ashan Iqbal, says the trend of companies partnering with bootcamps in collaborative or networked models will only accelerate as the market grows, which in turn will lead to better “credentials” for them.

“It’s becoming more prominent now. A lot of companies are looking at [bootcamps] as a genuine route to bring on people, and that is important and where we’ll see it going,” he says.

Advice for prospective bootcamp students

While bootcamps can be very useful tools, it can be difficult to know if the quality of the education provided and the ability to get a job after are as advertised.

“My advice for anyone looking to do it would be to look around at what options there are for learning, I wouldn’t jump on the first one. You may think you need to spend loads of money, but the likelihood is that you probably don’t,” says Robinson.

“It really depends on the individual and what suits them. If some people are really good at self-motivation then maybe they could save money, but there’s also a benefit of doing things in a classroom setting.”

While Lomas admits bootcamps can be a “roll of the dice” for many people, there are steps prospective students can take to minimise the chance of ending up on a sub-par course, and to ensure they are choosing the right courses for themselves as well.

Specifically he says to look at the individual portfolios of students that participate in these courses, as it can help show the progress someone has been able to make during their time with the bootcamp and how confident they are with their newfound skills.

However, it is also important to be realistic, as it is usually only the top 10 to 20% of graduates who could break through into the industry, adds Lomas.

“It comes down to your portfolio, that’s the big thing [employers] look for. A lot of these bootcamp places are like, ‘Here are some projects, once you’ve done them you’ll get a job’, and it doesn’t really work like that,” he says.

“Go make your own [projects], make it different and show what you can do. It will just add so much more value, so much more proof for an employer, and for a hiring manager, that you can do that stuff.”

For others, a major red flag prospective bootcampers should keep an eye out for is a lack of engagement with and by industry.

“I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet, but there are some sensible checks for any kind of upscaling and cross-training – look for large well-recognised providers,” says Hourizi.

“Above all else, look [at their] track record. There are people who have been doing this for a long time either directly in the bootcamp market or in related markets. If you see employer-driven courses, and employer-driven outcomes, that’s a good sign for you. If you see you see no evidence of employers involvement, either in the design of the course or in taking the students afterwards, you probably want to think very carefully to yourself about whether that’s for you.”

Capel and Dawes are also of the view that people who take the bootcamp route need to be fully committed to the choice and not give up on it in order for it to be successful.

“Students should take time to select the course which is right for them. It is important to ensure that the bootcamp teaches not only the technical knowledge, but also provides exposure to how a software team works in the real world. Getting this part right highly increases the chances of landing a dream job in technology,” said Capel.

FDM: A bootcamp alternative

Others, such as professional services and training firm FDM, have chosen training models that tie their business incentives to student success, so that learners are properly supported in getting a job.

Although not a bootcamp in the ‘traditional’ sense, as it has been providing ICT training since the early 1990s, FDM’s training revolves around a network of collaborative relationships with suppliers.

This means people can undergo the dedicated training schemes that enables them to move on to retained by FDM’s supplier clients for two years following the completion of their training, which initially ranges from anywhere between six and 17 weeks depending on the courses undertaken.

According to Jonathan Young, CIO at FDM, the company sets out to train new joiners with the latest digital skills, on professional courses adhering to recognised industry standards. The company makes an upfront investment in its trainees and has long-term partnerships with its clients.

“FDM invests heavily in helping new recruits to gain professional qualifications that enable them to move into exciting new careers, and we care deeply about the entire trainee journey.

“So the guys who go through training, in most places around the world, are employees from the start, and they become our employees when they first get placed on client site. If they’re not work ready, if they’re not in a position where they can immediately do a meaningful job in technology, then we failed,” he says, adding that once the two-year retention period is over, they can then either choose to work for FDM, the client or go their own way.

“Everything we do is very specific, very targeted at what the market requires, and that’s why it varies and why it changes – our clients depend on us to make sure that the people we present them with have the skills that they need.”

He added the model also benefits the companies as it gives them access to a pool of “talent liquidity” that would be very costly for them to develop themselves.

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